Post Script

Sun­set Over­drive’s clash of punk spirit and cor­po­rate cul­ture

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An­ar­chic, ir­rev­er­ent, edgy: Mi­crosoft’s mar­ket­ing would have you be­lieve Sun­set Over­drive is all of th­ese things. But it’s more mid­dle-age cri­sis than teenage re­bel­lion, its brand of cor­po­rate-ap­proved chaos mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing the con­cept of punk. It’s an ex­ec­u­tive wear­ing a Ra­mones T-shirt be­neath a suit jacket, in­sert­ing ‘rad’ in a Pow­erPoint slide, and liven­ing up con­fer­ences by book­ing the bands of his youth.

As a mu­si­cal genre, punk was de­fined as much by its at­ti­tude as its sound. It was about flick­ing two fin­gers at the es­tab­lish­ment, not giv­ing a sec­ond thought as to how oth­ers per­ceived it. Punk rock was played by per­form­ers who con­sid­ered their lack of vir­tu­os­ity a virtue. So to see it ap­pro­pri­ated by a game made with an ex­trav­a­gant bud­get and by a de­vel­oper with no lit­tle ex­per­tise is bizarre, not least be­cause it’s so plead­ingly keen for you to love it. It cares far too much.

That’s re­flected in so many as­pects of the game, not least its des­per­a­tion to look the part. A good por­tion of its se­lec­tion of hair­cuts, cloth­ing and tat­toos seems to have been sourced from a Google im­age search for ‘punk’, and as such there’s some­thing slightly too cal­cu­lated about its wardrobe, its colours and dis­tressed pat­terns too art­fully de­signed. It’s a Guardian fash­ion ed­i­tor’s idea of dress­ing down, while the stranger op­tions – a wolf’s head, a LARPer’s hel­met – have bet­ter, sil­lier equiv­a­lents in the Saints Row games.

Nor is punk about ade­noidal mum­blings and the oc­ca­sional yelp over chug­ging three-chord gui­tar rhythms. Over­drive’s sound­track fea­tures a num­ber of bands – The Melvins, The Bronx – who would self­i­den­tify as punk and yet, with a hand­ful of ex­cep­tions, it’s painfully one-note. If the ac­tion does its best to raise your pulse, the mu­sic seems to be en­deav­our­ing to re­turn your heart­beat to its rest­ing rate. To para­phrase Joey Ra­mone, punk is about be­ing an in­di­vid­ual and go­ing against the grain. You can’t be anti-es­tab­lish­ment when your ideas don’t break the sta­tus quo, but per­pet­u­ate it. Here is a game that suf­fers ev­ery bit as badly from the bloat that has af­flicted its con­tem­po­raries, that fills its world with con­tent and ex­pects ev­ery­one to be im­pressed by its vol­ume. It’s struc­tured almost iden­ti­cally to its peers, scat­ter­ing col­lectibles and op­tional chal­lenges through­out its world, and fea­tur­ing the lev­el­ling sys­tems and end­less up­grades that have be­come de rigueur in re­cent years.

Its hu­mour is a lit­tle too tar­geted as well. Its bar­rage of pop-cul­ture nods and self-ref­er­en­tial winks are mostly riffs on ideas we’ve seen on dozens of oc­ca­sions be­fore, and those that aren’t – a cutscene that bor­rows brazenly from Cabin In The Woods, and men­tions of Red­dit, GameFAQs and NeoGAF – again feel like they stem from its mak­ers’ keen­ness to demon­strate that they share plenty in common with their au­di­ence.

Else­where, at­tempts to break the fourth wall, and to poke fun at videogame con­ven­tions, fall into a common trap. One early mo­ment sees our pro­tag­o­nist won­der­ing aloud whether a nearby NPC is rel­e­vant, be­cause there’s no icon above his head. It’s a sharp lit­tle dig at a sta­ple of the open-world genre, but it’s in­stantly un­der­mined by In­som­niac slav­ishly ad­her­ing to it. It makes for a fine anal­ogy for the game as a whole, some­thing that hints at a de­sire to be dif­fer­ent but then fails almost en­tirely to follow it through. And no prizes for guess­ing what fol­lows a com­plaint about la­bo­ri­ous fetchquests.

The ex­ces­sive swear­ing, mean­while, feels like hol­low blus­ter, bring­ing to mind Bill Grundy goad­ing Steve Jones to “say some­thing out­ra­geous” on live tele­vi­sion. There’s cer­tainly some­thing amus­ing about a game that pur­ports to be punk fea­tur­ing fil­ters for gore and bad lan­guage, pre­sum­ably tai­lored to­wards any­one play­ing with chil­dren present (though, in fact, the fre­quent bleeps make the script’s potty mouth all the more no­tice­able, and fun­nier).

Yet that in it­self is strangely sub­ver­sive, an un­com­monly con­sid­er­ate ad­di­tion in a genre that tra­di­tion­ally cel­e­brates vi­o­lence and vul­gar­ity. And it’s not the only dis­rup­tive el­e­ment. Sun­set Over­drive is re­mark­ably frank about its plot con­trivances be­ing noth­ing more than flimsy ex­cuses to send you back out into the world to grind and bounce and shoot some mu­tants. Its non­playable in­ter­rup­tions cut to the chase, rather than wast­ing time with shal­low character de­vel­op­ment as many of its peers would.

And its tone is de­cid­edly un­ortho­dox: most open­world games are power fan­tasies, but this is a car­toon that em­braces its in­her­ent silli­ness. There’s some­thing de­light­fully old-fash­ioned about be­ing re­warded with thick wads of green­backs when you res­cue a sur­vivor, and like­wise the way they’re au­to­mat­i­cally ab­sorbed with­out your hav­ing to press a but­ton, or even pass over them. The game blithely re­fuses to make ex­cuses for its abun­dance of grind­able edges, nor ex­plain why rails and aban­doned ve­hi­cles are ar­ranged into rac­ing lines. There are no cutscenes that tell you why you can sud­denly dash in midair, or bounce higher than be­fore. You sim­ply can, and so you do. That’s weirdly rev­e­la­tory.

More­over, in forc­ing its play­ers to embrace its un­con­ven­tional meth­ods of get­ting around, Sun­set Over­drive finds a cru­cial point of dis­tinc­tion. Ac­tively in­cen­tivis­ing fluid move­ment and pun­ish­ing at­tempts to mud­dle through feels like a quiet kind of re­bel­lion against what we’ve come to ex­pect from the open-world genre, where ab­so­lute free­dom is king. Maybe there’s a lit­tle bit of punk in In­som­niac’s lat­est after all.

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